March 2018: When Things Don't Go As Planned

I don’t know about you but just between us I confess that there are times when I am somewhat of a control freak.  I don’t like to think of myself this way.  In fact, I prefer saying that I am well-organized and like to plan ahead.  Or, that a certain amount of structure is a healthy thing. 

Those who are parents understand the importance of creating predictable routines that enable our children to feel safe and to develop constructive habits.  The teachers among us commit our nights and weekends to creating lesson plans that provide students with active authentic experiences leading to a specific set of learning goals.  As educational leaders, planning and organization help us implement various initiatives, reach our targeted goals, and fulfill our mission. 

Now, I am not suggesting that we abandon the notion of planning ahead.  In fact, proper proactive planning enables us to anticipate potential risks, identify obstacles, and generate possible solutions to challenges that lay ahead. Planning can also reduce stress by allowing us to track our progress as well as to hold us accountable. But what happens when things don’t go as planned?

This winter Mother Nature has clearly communicated who is in control and who is not. As we anticipate the fourth Nor’Easter within a four week span, we once again brace ourselves for disruption to our daily routines. With the recent storms, many of our original plans are gone with the wind. Schools are closed, activities are cancelled, airports are shut down, homes are without power, and we are left feeling frustrated, helpless, and at the whim of an unfriendly universe. Although districts throughout New Jersey create annual contingency plans for inclement weather, this year we have been forced to start from scratch to readjust our calendar. And while bad weather can be inconvenient and interfere with our carefully laid plans, most of us are able to adjust to the temporary disruption. 

Sometimes, however, there are life events and unpredictable changes that have the capacity to rock our world and shake us up.  Divorce, illness, loss of a loved one, and other traumas can disorient us and send us spiraling out of control.  It is a natural instinct for us to react to these situations with anxiety, paralyzing fear, confusion, anger, or numbness. And while it may not be reasonable to expect that we can prepare for these kinds of life altering catastrophic events, we can remember to slow down and breathe through them as we open ourselves to the painful lessons they might teach us.

When we begin to appreciate our own vulnerability, we recognize that we are ultimately powerless over much of what the world has to offer.  Understanding that we don’t have all the answers can lead to the realization that healing occurs in its own time.  Our fast-paced 24/7 world has created the false impression that life can be rushed.  And, through no fault of our own, have bought into it. This is a lesson that we must unlearn.  Instead, we can, no - we must - learn to slow down. When we allow ourselves the time and space necessary to absorb and process a life changing event, we open ourselves to several possibilities.

First, life changing events can offer us the gift of clarity.  By thwarting our defenses and catching us off guard, they often help us discover who and what we truly value. They can serve to inspire and point us in new and positive directions.  Second, when we begin to respect the forces that lie beyond us, we learn little by little to let go of our need to control every aspect of our carefully constructed lives.    

In school, as well as at home, we can assist our children in working through disappointments, both large and small. Certain skills, such as perseverance and resilience, must be explicitly taught and are crucial for learning development and self-regulation. They not only help students to plan and prioritize but also to anticipate roadblocks and manage stress. As we plan experiences, and as students actively participate in productive struggle, they learn to develop flexible ways of thinking and recognize that not every problem has a solution.  

As humans, we want to lead neat well-ordered lives. Yet we must accept that things go wrong and life can be hard.  When we learn that we may not be able to control what happens to us, but that we can control our outlook about the things that take place, we discover that it is possible to master change rather than allowing it to overwhelm us.  It is this realization that guides us to understand that the painful experience of upheaval can open our hearts to the possibilities of the universal human experience and the knowledge that, in spite of ourselves, we are not alone.  


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